Written by: Robert J Smith

At the root of most problems concerned with ownership, conservation, pollution or pesticides we find public “ownership” or common property resources. It may be philosophically or emotionally pleasing to conservationists to believe that wildlife belongs to “everyone” or that oceans belong to “mankind”; however, the inevitable results of such a system are the opposite of what they desire. Any resource held in common – whether land, water, air, forest, fish, birds or mammals – is “owned by no one”. Since it can be used by everyone it is therefore rapidly wasted and depleted because those who abuse these valuable resources cannot be kept from using them.

Environmentalist Garret Hardin calls this “the tragedy of the commons”. Whenever a resource is held in common, from medieval pasture to modern national forests, the natural course of action for any individual user is to overuse it, leading inexorably to the destruction of the commons. It should be clear why sheep ranchers over-graze the public lands while maintaining lush pastures on their own property It should be equally obvious which would be picked at the optimum point of ripeness and why: apples in a private orchard or apples in a “public” park.

Private ownership allows the owner to capture the full capital value of the resource, and thus economic incentive directs him to maintain its long term capital value. The owner of the resource, be it a fishery, a mine, a forest, or the like, wants to produce today, tomorrow and then years from now. And with a renewable resource he will attempt to maintain a sustained yield. Given the nature of man and the motivating force of economic incentive we can see why the American buffalo is endangered, but not the Hereford or Jersey cow; why the prairie chicken is on the endangered list, but not the Rhode Island Red or the Leghorn.

Environmentalist destruction

Unfortunately, much of the conservation-environmental movement has yet to recognize this. They press for expansion of the public domain and for legislation to open more private lands to public access and use. So long as they continue to push for communal use of natural resources without ownership attaching to them and without payments for their use, we will continue to see nature destroyed.A recent environmentalist effort is toward ending private ownership of the seashores. Such increased access to and use of the beaches has already resulted in over-use, in greater garbage pollution, and the threat of over-harvesting shellfish.

Multiple use of public lands is an insoluble problem facing the environmentalists. As they are part of the “common heritage of mankind”, “belong to the people”, and are maintained by taxing everyone, we all have equal right to use them. But multiple use is a continuous source of conflict. How will “we” use a vast national forest in western Montana? For strip-mining coal, clear-cutting timber, preservation as a pristine wilderness for back-packers, exclusion of visitors for preservation of nesting areas for the endangered peregrine falcon, or intense use for hunting, fishing and camping? Who will weigh these conflicting uses, what criteria will be used in judging their relative merits, and how will the decision be made? Clearly, the only present solution lies in political struggle.

The Endangered Species Act is an example of how even the best intentions backfire in politics. Passed to prevent trade in wildlife, it has served only to bring the economics of prohibition into operation. Conservationists may call the commercial demand for spotted cat skins or parrots “immoral”, but so long as a demand exists, outlawing the legal supply only creates a black market in such animals and causes more harm to the wild population than would exist under legalized trade and private property. Skyrocketing black market prices have produced a flood of imports, the seizure of enormous quantities of “contraband” which must then be stored and guarded at taxpayer expense, and a shocking needless loss of life among rare animals. Whose side, then, are these so-called conservationists on? The animals?

The lessons of State ownership

It has become a fashionable tenet of conservationism that environmental disruption will disappear in a society where the State owns all means of production. Te conventional wisdom holds that because a private property system is “unable” to solve pollution problems, public ownership must. It is automatically assumed that if industry were State-owned, the State would ensure that the interests of the general public would be protected.

In the last decade, however, there has been an emerging awareness of serious environmental problems in socialist nations. The picture is a sorry one. Regardless of the alleged advantages of State ownership and of the existence of a vast body of comprehensive legislation expressly forbidding pollution and ecological disruption, we find countries like the USSR plagued by pollution of natural resources.

In spite of the outcry from many of the world’s scientists and naturalists, one of the world’s unique natural wonders, Lake Baikal in Siberia, is being desecrated. The major inland seas, the Caspian and Aral, are rapidly being polluted, and so much water is being diverted from them that their salinity is increasing, their water level is dropping, and there exists the possibility that the Aral Sea might dry up altogether. Much of the rivers flowing into these seas are nothing more than sewers.

The Aral Sea in 1989 (left) (two years after this article was written), and the Aral Sea in 2014 (right).

Conservation is an equally dismal picture. The number of Soviet nature preserves has decreased by 30% from its peak, and their size has been reduced. The USSR has the lowest percentage of total land set aside for preserves and parks of any developed country in the world, and from 1950-1966 that figure decreased by 50%!

There is, in fact, little hope of ever achieving conservationist and environmentalist goals in a socialist State, as all of the resources of the country will be mobilized to attempt to meet then ext “five year plan”. It is only naive to believe that any State anywhere acts to achieve the public interest.With all the means of production and all the natural resources owned by the State, this precludes even the possibility of an environmental movement. The printing presses, paper and ink for conservation groups are withheld. Private nature preserves, parks, refuges, etc., are eliminated.

A return to homesteading

Whales provide a classic example of the wanton waste generated by a common property resource system. Part of the “common heritage of mankind” and owned by no single individual, whales have been rapidly exploited to near extinction. Even the most conservation-minded whaler wouldn’t stop his over-harvest; if he didn’t take them, someone else would.

What, however, if we had extended private property ownership to the California gary whale herd, with the first users of that resource obtaining property rights in them – just as if whales were a copper mine or an oil well? Self-interest and economic incentive would have encouraged the whaler to conserve the whales. Since he could capture the capital value of the resource, he would act to maintain the long term capital value of his property and would harvest at a level which would produce a sustained yield. A patrol ship could travel back and forth with the whales on their annual migration from Alaska to Baja, California, protecting and caring for the herd.

There has been a rapid growth of such activities in the field of agriculture and mariculture: the Japanese pearl oyster industry, lobster and shrimp farms, private clam and oyster beds (where what was once thermal pollution, the heated water from power plants, is used to accelerate growth), and highly productive fish farms producing trout, salmon, catfish and carp. And the technology for actual ranching of fish in the sea is practically at hand.

The most interesting example of this approach is Mariculture, Ltd., in the Cayman Islands. Operating under the motto “Conservation via Commerce”, they have been successfully preserving green sea turtles though captive breeding programs with a far higher hatching rate than exists in nature. They are supplying the luxury goods market with products which the conservationists would ban altogether. Thus not only are they producing more turtles (something the prohibition does nothing about) but they are reducing the demand on the wild stock. Moreover, it is the well-to-do who support the program voluntarily, not the poor taxpayers whom conservationists would coerce.

Private game farms, preserves and parks have begun to create exciting possibilities for preservation of endangered species. Some have actually been saved from extinction because of private preserves or collections; like modern Noah’s Arks. Already private zoos, game parks and drive-through safari-like theme parks are breeding more great cats than the market can use and are resorting to birth control techniques to control the glut. Why not extend the concept of ranch-bred mink to ranch-bred cats to supply the fur trade and thus reduce the demand on the wild population? The same possibility exists for captive raised falcons and hawks for the falconry trade. With the demand for black market birds such that some falcons command prices as high as $10,000, why not use this as a method of paying for conservation and restocking programs as well as reducing the toll on the wild population?


Air and water pollution problems follow a similar analysis. Ask yourself: Do we dump sewage in our swimming pools or in the nearby non-owned creek? Which is more polluted and suffers most from over-use, Disneyland or Yosemite Park? Will litter and garbage be greater in a private park or in a town park?

We cannot escape the fact that those resources which are unowned – air, rivers, lakes and oceans – are treated as “sinks” for the free disposal of our wastes and effluents. Since they belong to one one, and there is no way to sue for trespass or charge for their use, the cheapest way of disposing of wastes is to dump them into the air and water.

The solution to pollution problems is two-fold. First, we must treat the problem correctly as an invasion of others’ rights. All that is necessary is to vigorously apply (and perhaps further develop) the common law to these cases. The law of trespass, the law of nuisance, and the general law of torts can remedy the invasion of a person’s body or property by smoke, chemicals, pesticides, noise, and the like. Historically it has not been a failure of the free market which permitted such pollution to exist, but rather a failure f the courts to uphold the right of private property, upon which a free market rests. When industrial pollution first began to appear as a serious problem, the courts repeatedly refused to protect the personal and property rights of individuals and held that the “common good” or “public policy” required the rapid industrialization of the country at the expense of individual rights.

The second part of the solution is to allow the development of private property rights in these unowned areas. As long as we permit the existence of unowned resources, we will continue to have conflict regarding responsibility and liability. Until we develop private property rights in rivers, lakes, the oceans, and air, we are going to be faced with a steady deterioration of these resources. A staring concept? Perhaps, but only because of unfamiliarity. Private ownership of fishing rights on European rivers has for centuries preserved their salmon far more successfully than our exploitative common property approach.

A libertarian opportunity

The supposedly insoluble problems of conservation, environmental preservation and pollution control become, upon close examination, amendable to solution if we allow freedom and private ownership. It is the absence of the profit stem and private property, not their existence, which causes environmental problems.

Every well-meaning attempt to limit, restrict, and reduce private ownership of natural resources only worsens the problem and creates still more serious ones – as does State interventionism in any other area.

Disclaimer: This article originally appeared in The Individualist of TBD 1987 (Vol. 12 No. 6). The Individualist was last published by the Lgibertarian Society of South Africa.